Feast of the Dead

Feast of the Dead

Type of Holiday: Religious (various Native American)
Date of Observation: Every ten to twelve years
Where Celebrated: Northeastern United States and Canada
Symbols and Customs: Defleshing, Funeral Games


The Feast of the Dead is part of several Native American religious traditions. The history of Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south. The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

The burial ceremony known as the Feast of the Dead was held by various North American Indian tribes-particularly the Iroquois, Huron, Algonquin, and Ottawa. The ceremony was held on an irregular basis, usually every ten to twelve years when a field-rotation cycle ended and the people who had been living in a particular area or village were ready to move on. Rather than leave their dead behind, and as a way of making it possible for the spirits of the deceased to complete their journey to the afterlife, the surviving relatives would carry what remained of the corpses to a central location and bury them in a common grave.

Although it sounds like a gruesome event, several communities usually participated in the feast, which lasted for ten days and, like any other funeral, gave the survivors an opportunity to renew their family and social bonds. The bodies of the dead, which had sometimes been buried but more commonly placed in a temporary grave on a scaffold, were gathered up and laid out in a row. Then the family members removed the flesh (see DEFLESHING ) from the bones and wrapped them with great care in animal skins and furs. The bodies of those who had died recently were left intact and wrapped in furs as well. Each family held a funeral feast at which speeches were made praising the deceased and gifts were presented in their honor.

The common burial ground was often many miles away, and families carried the corpses on litters and the bones in a bundle across their backs, wailing in imitation of the souls of the deceased as they marched. When they reached the burial ground, all the mourners would set up camp, light fires, and prepare for the ossuary ritual (an "ossuary" is a place for the bones of the dead). The younger men would engage in FUNERAL GAMES as entertainment, the women would prepare food, and the gifts that had been brought to accompany the dead on their journey would be laid out so that everyone could admire them. The huge open pit that would serve as a common grave was lined with beaver skins, ready to receive the remains.

When the time for the reburial arrived, people would line up around the edges of the pit and fling the bones and corpses in. A dozen or so Indians standing at the bottom would use long poles to arrange the heaps in an orderly manner. Families would cry out as the bodies of their loved ones toppled into the pit, and the level of noise and excitement was considerable. Then earth, logs, and stones were used to fill in the grave, and the shrieking and wailing subsided somewhat and became a funeral chant. In addition to being the last step in the long process of saying good-bye to loved ones, the Feast of the Dead gave these Native Americans a chance to renew or repair their relationships with their neighbors. Although scholars believe that the last Feast of the Dead was held in 1695, construction workers excavating the ground for a housing development in Scarborough, Ontario, in the 1950s stumbled upon such an Iroquois burial site. Local Native Americans held a Feast of the Dead and reburied the bones in another location, where it is hoped they will remain undisturbed forever.



The Native American tribes that practiced this ossuary ritual believed that when a person died, his or her spirit lingered for a period of time. Because flesh was what connected the body to earthly life, the soul or spirit could not depart until the body was free of it. The process of removing the flesh of a corpse from its bones, therefore, was symbolic of separating life from death, thus freeing the soul to continue its journey to the afterlife.

Funeral Games

The Feast of the Dead included sports activities. Young men (and frequently women) would have archery contests, and the mourners would award prizes for marksmanship in honor of their deceased family members. Another popular game was lacrosse, which was played by the tribes of the Iroquois Nation long before white settlers came to the New World. There was a spiritual aspect to the game back then, and it was often preceded by elaborate rituals and dances. Just as warriors played lacrosse to prepare themselves to endure the pains and injuries of battle, it may have been regarded as a symbolic preparation for the journey from this world to the afterlife.


Hirschfelder, Arlene B., and Paulette Fairbanks Molin. Encyclopedia of Native Ameri- can Religions. Updated edition. New York: Facts on File, 2000.


Wyandot Nation of Kansas www.wyandot.org/burial2.htm
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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